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Thursday, June 12, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert McNaughton

Maybe it was a simpler time, a time when a science-fiction blockbuster could be about an alien that wasn’t trying to destroy us. Maybe the world wasn't such a scary place and we didn't need to fear the unknown. Whatever the reason, whatever the attitudes which shaped E.T. and made it a hit, we should be grateful for the fact that it exists, because it isn’t just a movie. It’s a story that transcends boundaries of gender and age and genre, a story that comes from – and goes straight to – the heart. It’s a story about outsiders and belonging and, ultimately, finding “home.”

E.T. begins with an alien expedition to earth. When it is completed, and the aliens depart, one is left behind and eventually finds his way to Elliot (Henry Thomas), who hides him and helps him try to find a way to get home. In many ways, it’s a straight-forward family film, featuring plenty of precocious kids (including Drew Barrymore as Gertie, the most precocious of precocious kids), and focusing on friendship and the movement from childhood innocence into more grown-up knowledge. But it’s also more than that.

By now most people are aware that the film is Steven Spielberg’s meditation on his own parents’ divorce, and you can see that in the story and through its two protagonists. Elliot and E.T. are essentially mirrors of each other. E.T. is stranded in a foreign place and seeks home, and Elliot, too, seeks home, albeit in a different sense. The lingering pain of divorce is evident in the early scenes of the film and further alienates Elliot – who as the middle child would already occupy a strange and uncertain place within the family structure – from the rest of his family. Home isn’t just a physical place; it’s a mental/spiritual concept. By helping E.T. find home and reunite with his family, Elliot is also reconciling himself to his own family, and finding a place of his own to call home.

Although it’s a science fiction film, its greatest strength isn’t in its effects (which isn’t to say that its special effects aren’t good), but in its performances, which is amazing since the central performances are by children and a puppet. Thomas, Barrymore and Robert McNaughton all deliver finely wrought performances, a testament no doubt to Spielberg’s ability to direct children. They don’t come across as kids playing an adult’s idea of what kids are; they simply seem like kids, and very relatable ones to members of the audience who are kids. Thomas, especially, is very good as he carries much of the weight of the film and never overplays it. If you can’t muster a tear for the scene where Elliot and ET say goodbye (“I’ll… be… right… here.”), then film just isn’t a medium capable of moving you.

Much was made a few years ago when Spielberg decided to tinker with E.T. like George Lucas did with Star Wars. I’ve never seen the “remastered” version (as with the aforementioned Star Wars, I’m strictly old school when it comes to this film), but my understanding from people who have seen it is that the improvements simply… aren’t. Most seem to agree that efforts to CGI E.T. into looking more “realistic” have only had the opposite effect. As I said, I haven’t see it so I can’t really attest to that, but I can well imagine that that’s true because I generally find that CGI, which is meant to make things look more natural and organic, just makes everything look fake. I can however offer my opinion that Spielberg’s decision to remove the guns from the hands of government agents was a wasted effort, although I believe that his heart was in the right place. I saw E.T. a number of times as a kid and I don’t ever remember fixating on the guns but I do remember having nightmares about the scenes where the house is locked down by the government. I think any kid who can get past that probably isn’t going to be traumatized by the guns. I don’t know how difficult it is now to find the original, unremastered version of E.T., but I think it would be worth the effort of tracking down for anyone who has never seen it. It is, simply, a really great movie.

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